Andrew Allcock speaks to one of the UK's leading independent trainers and CAM programmers, Gardner CNC, about the company's history, business and services
Gardner CNC (01926 614882) is, in fact, Ian Gardner. One man, who has been training CNC machine tool operators/setters, providing product introduction support and writing CAM programs (milling, turning in the main) for both national and international clients, for some 25 years.
He is one of those individuals whose breadth of engineering/CNC experience is hard to find or, today, even develop. He operates within a network of industry contacts, with word-of-mouth referral – via machine suppliers or customers – his main introduction avenue. "I have never had a week without work since I started, unless I wanted one, that is," he reveals.
Located in rural Leamington, he travels far and wide, and is always available at the end of a telephone, even at weekends: "Although I don't encourage weekend calls," he offers wryly. Accessibility is a key ingredient of his service, including free advice over the phone. "I'm a great believer in 'what goes around comes around', so, if I can help a customer with five minutes of my time, I know that, somewhere down the line, they will recommend me to another potential customer."
Mr Gardner's career path could not have been plotted at the outset. "I left school and went straight into an apprenticeship, as a toolmaker, in the mid-70s. I completed that, staying there for 10 years. And, when the company bought its first CNC machine – a Bridgport Interact with Textron BOSS control – because I was the youngest, I was given the task of programming and running that."
These were the days of NC, not CNC, so we are talking about controls driven by paper tape. And that paper tape was created via a teletype machine, in G-code, with any errors meaning a tape splice. "That was my introduction to NC." And a thorough immersion in G-code still pays dividends today, as we shall see.
But, after 10 years, it was time for a change and Mr Gardner moved to Marrill Engineering, Coventry, which had just moved to the old Alfred Herbert machine tool site in Red Lane (the company is now Marrill Ltd, following administration in 2011). "I went there purely as a toolmaker, working on the machines, not the CNC side – with the company's move to the old Alfred Herbert site and with it taking on the name, too, it had started to retrofit and repair CNC machines with new controls.
"But after you retrofit or repair a CNC machine, you need someone to try it out and make sure it runs. I was in the right place at the right time. The company had read my CV and knew I had CNC experience, so they said 'you've got CNC experience, you'd better make sure this works'."
His role developed into more of a production engineering position, with Mr Gardner writing programs for specific customers, supporting turnkey projects. The subject control systems were mostly Fanuc, but also Siemens, GE and Heidenhain.
Although only here for a couple of years, it was during this time that the possibility of a freelance programming career was first considered, prompted by discussions with other subcontract engineers on a particular job. But this was not acted upon until after one final career move, this time to an aerospace company, based in Rugby, where he took up a position as production engineer, again involved with writing CNC programs.
To test the subcontract programming market, advertisements were placed in engineering magazines, including Machinery, and programming work started to follow. "For about 18 months, I was doing my eight-hour job at the aerospace company, and then coming home and doing another eight hours. But a decision had to be made, because 16-hour days were clearly not healthy. So, in 1988, Gardner CNC became a full-time concern."
A varied programme of work has been undertaken, with Mr Gardner programming "everything from [wooden] coffin lids to missile noses, and everything in between, including jewellery, plus every material in between". Basically, anything that can be made on a CNC has fallen within his scope. But CNC programming is today the minority of work, with training the bigger part; indeed, it has been for some years.
"In 1991, the DTI [Department of Trade and Industry, now BIS] ran a campaign, its Enterprise Initiative, where they half-funded consultants to come in and review a business. They said what I was doing was working, but had I considered offering training? Well, within a week of that, people started to ask for training, although I did nothing to prompt that; it just happened. And since then, the training side has grown to represent about 75-80% of what I do. The rest is either programming, setting machines up to get jobs into production; sales, installation and support of CADLink CAM and DNC software, plus advice on CNC-related issues." And in any one contract, some of these services may overlap.
This training is CNC training, not CAM software training, teaching people how to program, set and operate machines, taking in all major controls – Fanuc, Siemens, Mazak and Heidenhain, while Num and OSAI are others that have been tackled over the years. "I undertake all Centroid control training in the UK, as well as all Fagor CNC training, too," he adds.
WIDE RANGE OF CUSTOMER
And customers for this service take in the very largest household name engineering-based OEMs, right down to one-man band operations, or even hobbyists with CNC machine tools, as well as educational establishments. Geographically, coverage is national and even international. "I've worked in Qatar, Bangladesh, Portugal and Spain, for example," he explains.
This overseas work constitutes a small amount of all work, sometimes nothing in any one year, and is typically linked with exports of machines from the UK.
Training is often one-to-one, but not more than a handful at a time. Compared to class-based training that is offered by other organisations, Mr Gardner says: "Although some training classes work well in a classroom, the majority of people respond best, and learn most, from practical hands-on training that uses their own CNC technology. Indeed, sometimes those that have been on such training courses require my service, as they haven't absorbed the knowledge, for whatever reason."
And a measure of its effectiveness is highlighted: "The ongoing relationship between Gardner CNC and its clients is underlined by the fact that customers will specify training from me as part of a contract when specifying new or used machinery, even though the machine tool supplier may have their own training resource." Certainly, both Dynamic Machine Tools of Stockton on Tees, a customer of 10 years' standing, and Luso Electronic Products at Luton, a more recent customer, are happy to pay testament to Gardner CNC's services.
Keeping up to date with controls is achieved via his contacts in the industry, who will allow him to 'play' with new controls, although changes are incremental in nature, he suggests. "Basically, if you can operate, say, a Fanuc OT control from 1-15 years ago, you can operate a 31 control – some of the buttons are in different places, there are more soft-key selections, while there are more features, yes, but essentially you can still use the control." Overall, it is "relatively easy to keep up to date", he says.
As for his CAM programming activities, Mr Gardner uses CADLink software for simple work – 2.5D (turning, including C-axis, and milling), while, for more complex tasks, either ONECNC or Vero's VISI are used – "although, I don't tend to do much 3D work". And for simple programs, he will still write them long-hand, in G-code, getting intersection points from a CAM system, if required. Indeed, he adds: "It's surprising how simple some of the work is, but there are those people who don't want to know how to program; they don't have time, they are busy keeping the business going. They'd rather send me a drawing and be charged for a couple of hours' programming time."
Flexible, accessible, reliable, personal and, of course, knowledgeable; demand for Gardner CNC's services are clearly a constant.
First published in Machinery, March 2013
Author: Andrew Allcock